Tuesday, October 16th, 2012
[ This is a topic I plan to return to in the blog, but I’m frequently surprised by the naivete of urbanists who assume that civic plans must be fundamentally rooted in a desire to make the city better, when in reality many of them are plain and simple cronyism and corruption. There’s been a vast decline in civic leadership culture in recent years that has really torn of the veneer that used to cover up some of this. Alex Ihnen gives us a perfect example of the way things really work in cities in this piece that originally ran in nextStL. Sadly, this sort of thing is hardly limited to St. Louis or notorious corruption hotbeds like Chicago. It’s standard operating procedure in way too many places – Aaron. ]
Post-Dispatch reporters Stephen Deere and David Hunn have a must read article about corruption in St. Louis. Though it's not where you might expect to find it, the story lays bare the incestuous nature of the city's politics, "civic leaders" and cultural institutions they govern.
The details from the Post-Dispatch are bad enough: the Missouri History Museum purchased a failed barbecue restaurant at 5863 Delmar Boulevard from former city mayor Freeman Bosley, Jr. for $875,000 in 2006. A search of the city's property database shows the site to be the only property owned by the museum other than their home in Forest Park and the library and research center on Skinker Boulevard. The museum also paid $101,000 in legal fees for the purchase, as well as $16,000 in unpaid taxes and then paid to demolish the failed restaurant. That's a total of $992,000+ for one acre. Bosely Jr. and a business partner bought the then 1.65 acre lot and vacant McDonald's in 1999 for $150,000. The lot was divided and homes were built facing Enright Avenue. Bosely Jr. acquired $730,000 in loans, including $255,000 from the city from 1999-2004. If you're keeping track, that's $880,000 total.
The sale occured without a professional appraisal and without the property ever being listed for sale. As reported by the P-D, the chair of the museum board stated that members of the board were real estate professionals and so no appraisal was needed. Specifically, Realtor Elizabeth Robb is on the museum board. She claims that the property is worth more than $800,000 today. The lot is adjacent to the old Delmar High School purchased by Blueberry Hill owner and Loop Trolley developer Joe Edwards in 2004 for $333,000. That building will serve as a trolley car storage and maintenance facility.
You should read Deere and Hunn's P-D story. And you should definitely read Bill McClellan's absolutely brutal take on the issue. He propsoses that Robb and Archibald buy the property from the museum for $850,000 – "no need for an appraisal" he says.
Now that you know the details, you should know that this isn't an isolated incidient, a one-off, not-meant-to-be-reported issue. The list of names that govern St. Louis, the city, the county, its cultural institutions and civic efforts, is frighteningly small. Are we to believe that these are the only people capable of getting things done? That there's simply no other way? That the city and region would stagnate and wallow in its current state if these community luminaries didn't serve us by cutting million dollar deals for vacant lots on Delmar?
It's simply beyond frustrating that our civic institutions are governed by people who continue to show that they can't govern. Perhaps it's not unique to St. Louis that the same names pop up again and again on park boards, school boards, museum boards, non-profits and other civic efforts (think Edward Jones Dome, the effort to remake the Arch grounds and the coming campaign for more local tax money). Perhaps it's not a unique civic failure, but it is our failure.
Corrupt transactions like this make it difficult to support local institutions. Just last year, the P-D reported that the Science Center paid executives more than $260,000 in bonues. It employed nine vice-presidents. Each of the institutions included in the publicly funded zoo-museum taxing district (St. Louis City and County) paid their executive directors between $440-640K in salary, while often adding free housing and vehicle allowances of up to $1,000 per month. These are large institutions and require experienced professionals to run them and they should be well compensated. But it's clear that in more than one instance, the individuals sitting on the boards of these institutons have willfully neglected their responsiblity to the public.
Oh, and if you're not particularly happy about the history museum land deal, the issue at the science center, or the Ram's lease, or the Arch grounds, or… well, sorry. The next time you turn around and see that the city, or one of its cultural institutions is embarking on some bold new endeavor, you will see the same cast of civic actors on stage, the same backroom, off-the-books deals will have already been made, and St. Louis will continue to suffer as a result.
This post originally appeared in nextStL on September 18, 2012.